Automakers and tech companies are racing to make the autonomous — or driverless — car a reality, but current technology is already close to achieving this goal. Today, the average American can go to a local car dealer and purchase what’s essentially a semi-autonomous car, which means a fully driverless car may be just around the bend.
According to a recent report by Intel, 44% of people surveyed in the U.S. aid they wanted to live in driverless cities, where there are automated cars, trains and buses. Not only do they want it, 34% believe driverless cities will become a reality within the next 10 years.
The Almost-Autonomous Car
A handful of automakers already offer autonomous-like driving systems in their vehicles. Mercedes-Benz is arguably at the forefront of this type of driving. Combining lane departure warning, radar cruise control, and a few other key safety systems, Mercedes-Benz’s Traffic Jam Assist allows drivers of vehicles like the new 2014 S-Class to essentially let their cars take over for them in certain conditions.
Using two cameras mounted near the rearview mirror, combined with a radar-based cruise control system, Traffic Jam Assist positions the Mercedes a set distance behind the car in front of it, and guides acceleration, braking, and turning as you go down the road.
Above 37 mph, the system adds lane departure warning into the mix and steers the car around gradual curves.
You can even take your hands off the wheel and let the vehicle take full control, though after about 10 seconds the system prompts you to put your hands back on the wheel or it will shut off.
Experimenting with Magnets
Other luxury automakers have even more experimental systems in the pipeline. Volvo is currently trying out a concept in Sweden using magnets embedded in the road.
Realizing that a camera-based autonomous car system won’t function in inclement weather, Volvo fit a fleet of driverless cars with magnets and sensors, which allow the vehicles to exchange information with each other and the roadway.
Volvo says the benefits to its system include tighter traffic spacing than otherwise possible with cameras and improved communication between vehicles.
Legal issues represent one of the biggest obstacles to fully autonomous vehicles, as no one is quite sure who’s responsible for a car accident involving two self-driving cars. Audi is exploring autonomous car solutions while developing systems that will be relevant until today’s legislative questions are answered.
For example, the company’s Intelligent Merge Assist system uses cameras inside and outside the car, and exterior radar and laser sensors to suggest to the driver when it’s safe to merge onto a highway.
The in-car cameras measure a driver’s head position and the direction of their gaze, and harness the parking assist and active cruise control systems’ lasers and radars to detect when it’s safe, and at what speed it’s safe, to merge.
Once driverless cars are approved for the public, Audi would simply remove the human element from the equation, allowing the car to merge onto the roadway by itself.
The Not-Really-a-Car Autonomous Car
While most established automakers have set out to make a car that just happens to be autonomous, Google is hoping to redefine the very concept of a car.
The tech giant recently unveiled its pod-like prototype, which is missing many of the features automobiles have had since their inception. The car doesn’t have a gas or brake pedal—it doesn’t even have a steering wheel.
Three passengers can hop inside, input their destination, and sit back while radar and laser sensors help the car takes them there. Google is running a pilot program with its autonomous car in California and plans to mass-produce autonomous cars within the next decade or two.
Investment and Research Accelerating
Ethnographers, anthropologists and engineers at Intel are working on a variety of research projects aimed at making roads safer and gaining knowledge about the safest and most intuitive way for drivers to interact with their vehicles.
In May 2014, Intel announced new products, investments and research for connected cars and autonomous driving. Ongoing investments and research projects aim to uncover what people want from their cars and how cars can be more adaptive, predictive and interact with drivers and its surroundings. According to Intel, researchers are also looking at potential vulnerabilities of telematics system and ways to protect critical in-vehicle hardware and software.
Though the path to the truly autonomous car may be littered with questions and stopgap technologies, we’re closer to seeing a truly driverless vehicle today than ever before. And while autonomous cars may never fully replace cars with drivers, they’re already poised to take the “human” out of “human-error” on the road.